Thursday, 18 April 2019

Blooming weeds!

It is over a year since my last post and l'Orto di Casa Cecconi has a new home, in the Netherlands. A rather beautiful, large patch of land adjacent to a nature reserve and lake, it came with a big shed, more of a house really... The space is divided in two parts: a mature, ornamental garden with pond (siertuin in Dutch), and a vegetable patch (moestuin in Dutch) with sizeable glasshouse.

I am meeting new people and observing new methods of gardening and still discovering all the marvellous plants, meant or not meant to be there... which leads me to today's post.

People here don't seem so obsessed about weeds, road verges are quite colourful, and this is the time of dandelions and escaped rapeseed, so it's gold everywhere! However, having a walk on the plot the other day, someone saw a beautiful dandelion plant on my plot and pointed out that an allotment site is no place for such a prolific weed.

That really threw me. It's 2019: the insect population is collapsing, climate change is already affecting our gardens (it is so dry even here where water covers 18% of the land) and people really think that bare ground is better than leaving weeds in, and that it is a good idea to exterminate every wildflower in sight? Apparently yes, habits die hard, 'supremacist' horticultural beliefs as well (as in: man is superior to the rest of nature and must keep it under control).

Have we ever managed to exterminate weeds by our actions? Luckily not. So why do we keep creating more (mostly pointless) work for ourselves by trying to keep them at bay, would it not be better to learn how to live with (at least some of) them?

Dandelions are really pretty flowers, objectively speaking, and not a noxious weed by the definition:
A noxious weed, harmful weed or injurious weed is a weed that has been designated by an agricultural authority as one that is injurious to agricultural or horticultural crops, natural habitats or ecosystems, or humans or livestock
they are easily pulled out and have no spreading rhizomes, they do not overwhelm plants in the way bindweed does. Like all plants with a long tap root, they are effective at pulling up nutrients from the lower layers of the soil, and bringing them up to the surface... so good for the compost heap!

Wild bee

Do I have to say that pollinators love them? I have proof: there is a wild bee (the pollinators that are worst off at the moment) and an hoverfly - do you know their larvae decimate aphids? Definitely friends to nurture on a plot. Dandelions emerge rather early in the spring, at the same time as the first bees, and can therefore be a lifesaver at a time when little else may be available for them to eat.

I read that goldfinches and house sparrows do eat the seeds of dandelion, but who knows how many other insects and organisms rely on Taraxacum in their foodchain? Surely there are beetles and nobody ever thinks of the soil organisms that keep our soil healthy, for which root exudates are an essential source of nutrition.

Sadly, I could not find a handy list of the Taraxacum foodchain.

But I am a believer of the fact that we have to start thinking of 'weeds' in the context of the ecosystem they support, not just as our personal enemies. For example, over the years I have heard people lament the absence of butteflies, but not one of them has even hesitated when pulling out nettles, the main food source for at least two of the most favourite butterflies' caterpillars: red admiral (Vanessa atalanta) and peacock (Aglais io)! No caterpillars = no butterflies, right?

Back to the humble dandelion, another reason why it does not make sense to say it is a plant that does not belong in an allotment is that all parts of the plant are edible, palatable even, and in fact I wrote a post about that a few years ago

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

about my experiments with baking pie with the leaves, as a substitute for chicory catalogna. A couple of years ago I also had a go at deep-fried flowerheads in a batter: such a dense, umami taste I was not expecting! I even tried the roots, boiled as you would radici amare di Soncino - those were a bit fiddly to peel but I enjoyed the bitter taste with a drizzle of olive oil and white wine vinegar.

It is real, I'm not the only crazy person that eats dandelions, there are cultivars, someone bred them! For example Aster Lane Edibles.

Blooming weeds indeed!